Performing Arts

Kansas City Repertory Theatre’s ‘Santaland Diaries’ is still funny and a little sad

Brian Sills returns as the disgruntled department store elf in “The Santaland Diaries.”
Brian Sills returns as the disgruntled department store elf in “The Santaland Diaries.” Kansas City Repertory Theatre

It’s funny, it’s irreverent, it’s acerbic and profane, but “The Santaland Diaries,” now being staged for the third consecutive year by Kansas City Repertory Theatre, is also a poignant reflection on what the holidays regrettably are.

The weeks leading up to Christmas as depicted in this play are a pressure-cooker of crazed shopping and a weeks-long obsession with creating “special” family memories. The first version of Sedaris’s piece aired on NPR in the early 1990s, and a generation later this can rightly be considered a period piece. But the incongruous humor of a reluctant, foul-mouthed elf dealing with screaming children and angry parents in a manufactured wonderland where the kids get to tell “Santa” what they want for Christmas still strikes home.

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The Rep production, directed by Eric Rosen, retains the design elements of the previous stagings. It still has a polished look and scenic designer Clint Ramos’s set is still an impressive piece of work. “Santaland,” the area of the store where kids line up to sit on Santa’s lap, is contained within a huge Christmas box with a bow; at a certain point early in the show the sides give way to reveal the interior — Santa’s throne positioned amid a white expanse of fake snow, a cascading stream of red tree ornaments and a model train on an oval track.

Brian Sills returns as the harried temp worker named David. Sills seems so comfortable the role at this point that he virtually owns it, and his sense of humor has become nuanced, precise and targeted. The role requires flexibility and versatility, both of which Sills delivers with ease. He is again joined onstage by singer Shanna Jones, who mixes holiday tunes into the show, accompanying herself on guitar, ukulele, xylophone, a tambourine attached to one foot and a variety of rhythm instruments. At one point she performs a very funny bit as a “cheerleader” to the newly recruited elves.

The script by Joe Mantello is nothing if not compact. The performance clocks in at less than 90 minutes. And Rosen’s direction is a model of efficiency. Clearly Rosen, the Rep’s artistic director, hopes this production will continue as an annual counterpoint to the Rep’s monumental production of “A Christmas Carol” with its life-affirming message, enormous cast and elaborate physical production. And he may be on to something. Anyone who thinks Scrooge has the right idea when he barks “Humbug!” might want to check out this show.

Robert Trussell: 816-234-4765, @roberttrussell

“The Santaland Diaries” runs through Dec. 24 at Copaken Stage, 13th and Walnut. Call 816-235-2700 or go to KCRep.org.

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